Families Fight Schools For The Special Education COVID Shut Down Special education services were severely disrupted when schools closed in spring 2020. In many places, they have yet to fully resume. Now, families are demanding schools take action.

After Months Of Special Education Turmoil, Families Say Schools Owe Them

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LEILA FADEL, HOST:

More than 7 million school children receive special education services nationwide - at least they did before the pandemic. The services covered things like speech, occupational and physical therapy and behavioral counseling. But when schools closed in the spring of 2020, many of these vital services stopped. And more than a year later, in some places, they still haven't fully restarted. Now many parents, caregivers and attorneys are starting to ask schools, what are you going to do to make up for all that these children have lost? NPR's Cory Turner and freelance reporter Rebecca Klein have that story.

REBECCA KLEIN, BYLINE: We spoke with parents and caregivers all over the country, from a mother who works nights as a jail nurse on Rikers Island to a Navajo rancher raising his grandson in New Mexico.

CORY TURNER, BYLINE: And they all told similar stories about caring for children who went months - and in some cases, more than a year - without the special education services they need to learn.

KLEIN: As a result, doing school remotely wasn't just hard, they say. It was impossible

RACHAEL BERG: In general, it was probably a three-minute attention span.

MAYRA IRIZARRY: I got to be constantly on him. Raynardo, please, listen to the teacher. Raynardo.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: He actually would start hiding under tables and get physically aggressive at times.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: He would put me in, like, a headlock and grab me by my hair.

CAROLYN SHOFNER: We would maybe make it through the first two classes. And then the meltdowns would start.

BERG: One time, she broke the computer.

IRIZARRY: You know, this is, like, every day.

SHOFNER: And I couldn't get the teachers to focus on her. It was all very...

TIMOTHY LARGO: And I told them, too, that I feel like he's being left behind.

IRIZARRY: It's just not in him to be on the computer.

SHOFNER: It was just infuriating.

BERG: So frustrated.

CHRYSTAL BELL: It takes him so much more work to make every little accomplishment.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: That was the last time that I tried to force him to do school.

BELL: I'm sorry. I just want our kids to be valued as much as others. They have potential, too.

TURNER: That was Chrystal Bell and Mayra Irizarry in New York, Kate Maglothin in Michigan, Carolyn Shofner in Tennessee...

KLEIN: Timothy Largo in New Mexico - and in Maryland, Rachael Berg and Kimberly (ph), a mom who asked that we only use her first name to protect her son's privacy. These families say without the usual access to special educators, counselors, therapists and aides, their children lost academic, social and even physical skills.

TURNER: To be clear, though, they don't blame teachers. Instead, Shofner, a mother in Nashville and most of the parents we talked to say they blame a larger education bureaucracy.

SHOFNER: There's something about the institution that creates the havoc that makes it unfair.

KLEIN: In legal complaints across the country, families say districts now need to make up for the special education services children missed during the pandemic. Their arguments hinge on a federal law known as IDEA - the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

TURNER: It says children with disabilities are legally entitled to a public education that is two things, free and appropriate. Appropriate means if a child needs specific help to learn, then schools have to provide it. Since many districts did not during the pandemic, some families are now arguing...

LESLIE SEID MARGOLIS: You're violating my child's rights.

KLEIN: Leslie Seid Margolis is a managing attorney at Disability Rights Maryland.

MARGOLIS: Do you get to violate them until the parent shows up and says, wait a minute, you can't do this anymore? I mean, that's not the way this is supposed to work.

TURNER: Margolis has filed a complaint in Maryland saying students who did not get an appropriate education during the pandemic are now entitled to something called compensatory services to get them where they should be.

KLEIN: Those two words, compensatory services, don't sit well with attorneys who advise school districts because providing them can be expensive and a logistical challenge. But mostly, they say, because the words suggest that schools did something wrong during the pandemic or worse, that they acted in bad faith.

ANDREW MANNA: It's hard to say that that was the fault of the school or anyone. It was an act of God. It was a pandemic.

TURNER: Attorney Andrew Manna advises districts and says it's important to remember, for months, special educators weren't allowed to work in-person for valid safety concerns. Remote learning was also new. It was an experiment. And many services like physical and occupational therapy just couldn't be done well remotely. And still, lots of schools tried.

KLEIN: So Manna argues they should be held to a more realistic standard. During the shutdown, did they and are they now making a good-faith effort to serve students with disabilities? And it's not just Manna. We also spoke with Jim Keith of the Council of School Attorneys for the National School Board Association. Listen to how many times they both circled back to those three words.

MANNA: If there is a good-faith effort and it was no fault of the school, how do we help those students that did lose the instructional time?

JIM KEITH: It was a good-faith effort to contact those parents.

MANNA: Good faith.

KEITH: Good-faith effort.

MANNA: Good-faith effort.

KEITH: A good-faith effort.

MANNA: A good-faith effort.

KEITH: Good faith.

MANNA: Good faith.

KEITH: Good faith. Good-faith effort.

MANNA: Good-faith effort.

KEITH: Good faith.

MANNA: Good faith.

KEITH: Good faith. Good faith.

MANNA: Good faith.

KEITH: Good faith. Good-faith effort.

TURNER: During an unprecedented disaster, they say, intent matters, not just whether schools provided all special education services. Keith says, even now, there are huge challenges to offering the make-up services that kids need.

KEITH: All of my clients are scrambling to find additional personnel to work during the summertime to provide a lot of these services that have been missed up to this point.

KLEIN: But all this worries disability advocates, who say if schools are judged by intent and not results, lots of students with disabilities will lose. Even before the pandemic, they say, some districts just didn't prioritize special education. Therese Yanan heads the Native American Disability Law Center in New Mexico. She remembers many years ago being on the phone with the school attorney, trying to get the district to pay for a child's special education services.

THERESE YANAN: And I said to him, you know, the student needs these services. And he said to me, Therese, if the school provides this student with these services, the football team won't get new uniforms this year. And I responded saying, do you know how much I don't really care about the football uniforms?

KLEIN: And so this special education fight boils down to trust, with schools insisting they did the best they could under clearly difficult circumstances and pledging to families that they will provide some make-up services in good faith.

TURNER: While advocates push back, saying, it's been 15 months. And many children are still waiting for the help they're legally entitled to. And in the middle are families, frustrated and confused, certain of nothing but that they want the best for their kids.

KLEIN: For NPR News, I'm Rebecca Klein.

TURNER: And I'm Cory Turner.

(SOUNDBITE OF DORENA'S "MY CHILDHOOD FRIEND")

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